As I noted some time ago, the principal language of Indian philosophy was Sanskrit. For some thinkers, Sanskrit’s status as a philosophical language was a direct consequence of its privileged position with respect to meaning and truth: the Sanskrit language was itself eternal, and its words possessed an originary (autpattika) connection to meanings that are themselves eternal, and in other languages both the words and their connection to meanings are unstable, degraded, and fundamentally untrustworthy. For Buddhists and Jains, however, Sanskrit was just a language. They rejected the eternality of language, and especially of the Sanskrit language, and denied that Sanskrit’s relationship with truth was more direct than that of any other language.
But they still wrote in Sanskrit. Buddhists started writing in Sanskrit before Jains, but by the middle of the 1st millennium CE, almost everything that could count as philosophical discourse in India was composed in Sanskrit. There are good reasons to believe that the transition to Sanskrit broadly coincided with a reorientation of all philosophical schools from an “inward” to an “outward” perspective, that is, an engagement with philosophical opponents outside of one’s own tradition (see Eltschinger 2013 for a convincing account of this reorientation in sixth-century Buddhism). In some respects this transition is completely unremarkable—intersectarian debate requires an intersectarian language, and Sanskrit was the only viable candidate—and indeed very few authors actually remarked on it. But for Buddhists and Jains, writing in Sanskrit might be seen as acceding to the very ideology of language that had been used to denigrate and reject their own scriptures, or even as a violation of their preexisting commitments to vernacular language practices.
The 11th-century Jain philosopher Prabhācandra offers one way of thinking about the connection between the philosophy of language and the language of philosophy: provisional acceptance (abhyupagama). In his Moon for the Night-Blooming Lily of Reasoning (Nyāyakumudacandra), a detailed commentary on Akalaṅka’s Three Very Short Treatises (Laghīyastraya), a pūrvapakṣin claims that only Sanskrit words are correct (sādhu). One of the arguments the pūrvapakṣin is that even if you do not accept another person’s sacred texts, in order to convince other people, you still have to accept some mode of argumentation that could establish the validity of those texts, otherwise we’d have to leave all of our arguments aside and try to convince each other with mental constructs and hand-gestures:
śāstraprāmāṇyam anabhyupagacchatā ‘pi parapratyāyanāya sādhanadūṣaṇaprayogaḥ tatprāmāṇyaprasādhano ‘vaśyābhyupagantavyaḥ, tadanabhyupagame svaparapakṣasādhanadūṣaṇaprapañcapratyastamayaprasaṅgāt, kevalair manovikalpaiḥ aṅgasaṃjñābhir vā parapratyāyanānupapatteḥ.
Prabhācandra does not circle back around to this argument in the siddhānta. How could he? He is a Digambara monk, arguing at length against Mīmāṃsakas about the privileged status of the Sanskrit language and the Sanskrit grammar, and defending the communicative power of Prakrit and the legitimacy of vernacular language practices—but he’s doing all of this in Sanskrit. The strategy of provisional acceptance (abhyupagama) is immensely important to Indian philosophy in general: It’s necessary when, as if often the case, you don’t accept all of your opponent’s presuppositions but you nevertheless want to argue that those presuppositions would force him into different conclusions. Here, Prabhācandra’s pūrvapakṣin turns it into a gesture of accommodation that makes philosophical debate possible in the first place. Perhaps it’s stretching it too far, but this seems tantamount to the realization that discourse, philosophical discourse included, never occurs in a completely neutral space, but requires participants to acknowledge and adapt to social facts and asymmetries of power. And one of the implications of this realization is that you can’t simply wait around for hundreds of years for people to start speaking your language.
What other reflections do Indian philosophers offer on their own language practices? Are there other cases in which provisional acceptance (abhyupagama) serves as a strategy of accommodation? How does abhyupagama in this case relate to the Buddhist idea of skillful means (upāya-kauśalya)?
References: Eltschinger 2013, “Buddhist Esotericism and Epistemology: Two Sixth-Century Innovations as Buddhist Responses to Social and Religio-Political Transformations,” pp. 171-273 in E. Franco (ed.), Periodization and Historiography of Indian Philosophy (Vienna).
Prabhācandra’s Nyāyakumudacandra: ed. by Mahendrakumāra in the Māṇikcand Digambar Jain Granthamālā (Bombay 1938).